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Columnist Stephen Quinn. (The Globe and Mail)
Columnist Stephen Quinn. (The Globe and Mail)

CITY LIMITS

Portland Hotel Society defenders must answer for the waste Add to ...

The tweets started rolling in during an on-air interview I did with Vancouver East MP Libby Davies on Tuesday. Ms. Davies, defending the Portland Hotel Society, was going around in circles: “The services provided by the Portland Hotel Society are excellent … these are incredible services … they are pioneers in harm reduction … these are critical services for the people of the Downtown Eastside.”

It was the same message rut that all defenders of the PHS – including Mike Harcourt, MLA Jenny Kwan and Senator Larry Campbell – have worn knee-deep this week. And like them, Ms. Davies sidestepped questions about whether she thought it was appropriate that a non-profit society dedicated to helping the poorest of the poor spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on exotic travel, gifts, spas and celebrations. The story has been out for more than a week now – the gory details have been widely reported.

When the interview was over, I was surprised by the reaction.

Clint Burnham, an associate professor of English at Simon Fraser University, suggested on Twitter that I had sunk to “… gotcha journalism, stoking taxpayer outrage.” He explained in another tweet, “My point is issues around accounting practices are becoming a media frenzy that serves as poor-bashing by proxy.”

Ivan Drury, a Downtown Eastside activist and a former student of Prof. Burnham, was more direct. He tweeted that I was “sounding astonishingly like Bill O’Reilly” and “… you’re not usually so myopic.”

In the bait-infested waters of Twitter, the comments were not out of the ordinary.

But the question nagged: How could anyone see the spending of Portland Hotel Society executives as anything other than the outrage that it plainly is?

Staying at the Plaza Hotel in New York? A bill for $230 to get your hair done before a presentation? A cruise down the Danube? A houseboat in Wales? The dinners, the flowers, the limousines? All of it billed through credit cards back to the not-for-profit-society.

The facts speak for themselves.

Walking home later the same day, I ran into two semi-retired journalist acquaintances who I was certain would put my mind at ease. “It’s ridiculous,” one of them told me after I asked them what they thought. But he wasn’t talking about the unfettered spending, he was talking about the media-fuelled outrage and the attention being paid to the audits. Both were in the same camp as the tweeters – two not-quite-grizzled media veterans were also telling me my outrage was misplaced.

I called Mr. Drury and asked him to have coffee. I’ve known him for years through his activism. He’s the guy you sometimes see shouting down opponents at Vancouver City Council meetings. He was front and centre in the protests over the opening of PiDgiN restaurant. He is, according to his Twitter profile, “a Marxist who rejects historical determinism and a community activist who believes in revolution.”

What did he think of the spending by Portland executives? “I’m disgusted by it,” he told me. “This is navel-gazing and a narcissistic problem in the leadership of the PHS. I see their spending excesses in the same blinkered way they’ve always operated.”

So why defend them? Why take me to task in the public forum of Twitter?

“It’s the context,” Mr. Drury said. “There is a history of going after organizations as a way of withdrawing advocacy services from the Downtown Eastside.… I worry that what’s going to happen is another round of funding cuts. The message to service organizations is just shut up and take it.”

And on the reporting of it? “The gotcha stuff is there to foment taxpayer outrage,” he told me.

Later in the week I finally spoke with Mark Townsend, from whom I expected some demonstration of contrition – perhaps even an apology. There was none.

“Whenever you are trying to innovate, you make mistakes,” he began.

On the excessive spending, he said the perks to staff came in lieu of the usual benefits an employee at another organization might enjoy.

He needed to stay at the Plaza Hotel in New York because he was taking the fight to keep Insite open to the world stage. Also, the PHS does not have the luxury of a designated person to book travel for them; they were making the bookings themselves off the sides of their desks.

PHS got specific donations for outreach and travel. The audits lumped together three years of expenses so it looks like a lot of money. It wasn’t taxpayer money. And it went on.

It was the fact that the audits contained little that was positive that Mr. Townsend found to be “heartbreaking.”

The Portland Hotel Society may have been an easy target – in part because the provincial government knew there was a lot to uncover. The executives may have been targeted because they fought back, or because of their “end justifies the means” method of operating. They may have been chosen, as Mr. Drury suspects, as an example to other organizations.

Whatever the reason, they got caught and in the end what has been uncovered not only tears down much of what they have built, it hurts everyone.

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